Have you ever visited a public place that is welcoming and makes you feel comfortable? In my experience as an autistic person, I find many public places not very welcoming. There are a lot of sensory overloading inputs and not many supports to deal with them.
I attended the Neurodiversity: Building Community and Rethinking the Built Environment Symposium presented by the College of Architecture and the Built Environment in collaboration with Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity. I want to share what I think about inclusive design.
I think people who design these places need to understand our sensory needs and take them into consideration. Sometimes a small thing can make a large impact. Once I was in a mall and the flow of people around me made me dysregulated. I wanted to run out. If I could walk to the store directly without having to walk through a crowded hallway, it would be so much better.
If you are designing a sensory friendly building, start by talking to a few autistic people about their needs. Allow them to share their experiences and suggestions. If you can also make some changes to existing buildings, it will make a big difference. In this blog I want to share my views on inclusive design.
Sensory and Communication Needs
Inclusive mindset is necessary to understand sensory needs of autistic people. To design for neurodiverse people an architect should look at all the sources of sensory inputs. Autistic people experience multiple sensations at the same time. For example, sound of running water is painful to some people. It can create funny feelings on skin. Some people may taste sounds made by air conditioners, fans, and heaters. Many autistic people have synesthesia. Some people can taste or smell colors. Colors of walls and furniture can be soothing or disturbing.
Some people with autism can feel overwhelmed by too much light. They need spaces that are not too bright. In restrooms autistic people can get overwhelmed by falling water in a closed stall. Too many smells can be dysregulating.
In addition to sensory needs, autistic people need support for communication. This may include visual cues, signs and partitions. Next step after visual cues is clearly marked spaces for various functions. Clearly marked spaces make it easy for us to find our way. Some people use augmentative means for communication. Public spaces should have support for various means of communication.
Suggestions for Autism Friendly Design
Everything in a building should be laid out to allow us to move in circles. We need to run to regulate our bodies. Nice placement of rooms and corridors is critical to universal design. I think waiting areas in hospitals, airports and other public buildings should have a walking path that lets us move to reduce anxiety. In a classroom, furniture should be arranged to allow students to move and listen at the same time.
There should be some transition spaces between two high sensory input areas. Transition spaces can be used as escape from highly stimulating environments. I think common areas, such as swimming pools and dining area, in many hotels are very loud and confusing. There should be some space near these common areas where we can escape and rest.
PHOTO BY TOM WERNER/GETTY IMAGES
In my opinion, the layout of aisles in grocery stores very overwhelming. The layout of aisles should be decluttered. Another thing in grocery stores is flow of people and shopping carts. Shopping carts make annoying sounds when they move. I would like it if shopping carts were small and not so loud. It would be nice not to be blocked in an aisle when other people are standing with their carts. Layout of aisles should allow us to run if I need to release some energy. Large stores are very confusing and unsettling. There should be some small shops where we can go and buy merchandise in a quiet setting. I like to shop at a store with nice atmosphere and clearly displayed signs. I like shopping at Publix because they have less crowded aisles. I like stores with warm lighting and wide aisles.
In my opinion, eating at restaurants can be overwhelming. I think restaurants should have a place where I can sit and watch outside while eating. I think restaurants should allow autistic people to be able to choose their seats. Some autistic people have a strong sense of smell. They would like to sit away from kitchen. Some restaurants have soft music playing. I find it calming.
Include Autistic People in Design
To understand our needs visit our schools and homes. Talk to autistic people, their parents and teachers. It is very important to take our sensory needs into consideration if you want to make a place autism friendly. It is important to interview autistic people about their sensory needs and use their suggestions in design.
There are some points to consider while interviewing us. First and foremost is to assume competence. If we need to make noise or stim, please be patient and wait for us to answer. Interviewers should prepare questions that allow us to give open response. If you only ask this or that questions, you will not get a complete picture. Have some autistic people review your questions to make sure they cover a wide spectrum. There should be questions about our experience with a space that you are designing. Sometimes describing an experience is more useful. Some people find it easier to relate to a personal story. In addition to interviewing autistic people, consider walking through your design with them. They can see the small details other people have missed.
Lastly I want to say that universal design should include accommodations for neurodiverse people along with people with physical challenges. This means that we cannot only access a public space, we can also participate fully. I want to see a place where I can feel welcome and included.
Divyesh is a nonspeaking individual from Tampa, FA who can spell to communicate. His goal is to make mostly neurotypicals understand how we are on the inside. Right when he met Dana at her clinic he knew his life would never be the same.